We all now know what PPE stands for, but Beau Wangtrakuldee was thinking about the shorthand for personal protective equipment well before a global pandemic changed every aspect of daily life.
Wangtrakuldee is the founder of AmorSui, a line of protective clothing designed for female scientists and, now, health care workers. The line launched in 2018, after she was badly burned by a chemical spill through her lab coat when she was a chemistry PhD developing anti-cancer drugs at Northern Illinois University.
While business was slow in the beginning, over the last couple months, the fledgling company has been inundated with requests for machine-washable surgical gowns, lab coats and masks.
“We’re pivoting to use our capabilities to make essential PPE and really focusing on using sustainable fabric,” said Wangtrakuldee, who hails from Thailand and is based in Philadelphia.
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“As a woman scientist, you’re on the go,” she added. “The textiles have to be soft and durable, and have stretchability for women with curves.”
Wangtrakuldee is currently offering items such as the best-selling fire-resistant face masks in two sizes and “The Rebecca Crumpler Level 3 Antimicrobial Surgical Gown,” named after the first African-American woman who became a physician in 1864. The masks run for $20, and the gowns for $80.
True to her inclusive mission, Wangtrakuldee also recently started offering reusable, antimicrobial hijabs to protect Muslim women in STEM.
“Hijabi women are working with flammable products, and [the head covering] is made of cotton or silk, and you don’t want burned hair,” said Wangtrakuldee. “I work with freelancers who are hijabi women and they gave feedback on how to actually make them fit — they’re breathable, moisture-wicking and antimicrobial.”
She is reaching out to different universities and partnering with a professor at the University of Egypt to make the stylish and safe head coverings available. “This is another example of how we are collaborating with others to make the workplace more inclusive and diverse,” she said.
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Wangtrakuldee works with fashion designers such as Victoria Wright, and she employs two part-time staffers and a team of 10 to 15 freelancers. All of her vendors and manufacturers, including the factory she uses, she said, are women and minority owned.
She recently received a large order from the Atlantic Health System, a private hospital system based in New Jersey, and interest from other medical networks in the New York Cityarea. There are also bulk face mask and gown orders from hospitals in Texas and Hawaii, as well as from labs at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We’ve been growing steadily,” Wangtrakuldee said. “We were in a really niche market in the beginning, but it’s good in a way because we learned how to do things right.”
In its first year, AmorSui — the Latin term for “self-love” — took in about $25,000 in sales with some help from IFundWomen, a crowdfunding platform that funds female entrepreneurs. Now, the business is approaching $1 million in sales by the end of the year, Wangtrakuldee said.
“We did lose some business at the beginning of Covid — there weren’t any sales at all and it was difficult,” she said, noting that a PPE pilot program at Harvard University fell through in March. “But I think we will be profitable. We have enough funds to sustain our business and we anticipate additional business funding.”
Looking forward, Wangtrakuldee has a slew of ideas for how to grow her business. She is currently scouting for strategic partners who will take AmorSui to the next level by providing data analytics and machine learning capability to track how hospitals are using the materials and when they are running low.
She also wants to offer two separate lines — one for research and development, and another for medical workers — that will eventually be more gender inclusive, for both men and women.
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Given the current global crises, additional options for personal protective equipment could help in more ways than just the obvious one.
“The US has a lot of challenges around PPE,” Wangtrakuldee said. “There is a shortage of disposable PPE, and there’s a lot of medical waste being generated from masks, surgical gowns and gloves. Now, we are actually seeing from an environmental perspective those things popping up in the ocean.”
She wants investors to take a leap on her product in hopes of ultimately avoiding similar mishaps like the one she sustained at school.
“People don’t understand that clothing that doesn’t fit actually causes more accidents,” she said. “It’s a big problem, and it’s why I started this business in the first place.”